Who Do You Trust? The Detroit Tiger Closer Quiz

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In 1956 a soon-to-be famous comedian by the name of Johnny Carson began hosting a TV quiz show dubbed “Who Do You Trust?”.

Carson left the show for greener pastures in 1962, which may have been the last time the Detroit Tigers had a reliable bullpen.

A half century or so later the same “trust” question faces first year Tiger manager Brad Ausmus as he considers who might be his most reliable closer as the season winds down.

His decision, necessitated by the continued inconsistency of incumbent Joe Nathan, could go a long way towards defining his legacy as a major league manager.

Few anticipated Ausmus would be in this position when the Tigers signed Nathan to a two-year, $20 million contract in the offseason. Nathan, though in his late 30’s, was coming off a sterling year as the closer in Texas and his acquisition promptly placed Detroit among the elite teams with a chance to win the World Series.

But it hasn’t worked out that way, as Nathan has struggled for virtually the entire year.

His ERA is a lofty 5.10 and he has walked 28 in 54 innings, an unacceptably high ratio. His WHIP is an unsightly 1.57.

Though he’s been marginally better in the second half, he’s constantly pitching on the edge, allowing a parade of base runners while the fan base cringes.

His latest debacle, an excruciating blown save in Minnesota on Tuesday night, has brought the question into high relief:

Who should be the Detroit Tigers’ closer?

As it stands today, there are three candidates.

Let’s examine the pluses and minuses of each.

Joe Nathan

Why he should be the closer

Nathan is a savvy veteran who has been through the wars. No situation is new to him-he’s seen it all before and along the way has posted numbers worthy of Hall of Fame consideration.

Nathan also has a large contract which extends into next year. What happens to his motivation in 2015 if he’s demoted to a lesser role at this point?

Why he shouldn’t be the closer

Given six and a half-months to prove himself, Nathan simply hasn’t done the job.

This team is on the brink of losing the division to the upstart Kansas City Royals, and is not even assured of a wild-card shot in the postseason. The Tigers have other legitimate options at closer aside from Nathan and it’s getting late.

Joakim Soria

Soria was obtained near the trade deadline from Texas. Sensing the Tigers’ desperation for relief help, the Rangers extracted a heinous price in return, receiving promising pitchers Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel.

Why he should be the closer

The 30-year-old Soria is an accomplished closer who was having another fine year when he arrived in Detroit. He had saved 17 of 19 games (90%) for Texas in 2014 and had an ERA of 2.70, about half the size of Nathan’s.

More importantly, he stingily refuses to allow hitters to reach base, as evidenced by his WHIP of 1.08. Though not a power pitcher, he strikes out 10.4 batters per nine innings, and walks only 1.3 – which translates to nearly eight strikeouts for every walk issued.

For comparison purposes, Nathan strikes out fewer than two hitters for every walk.

Why he shouldn’t be the closer

Soria has gotten off to a slow start in the Motor City.

In nine appearances (interrupted by a lengthy stint on the disabled list with an oblique strain) he has yielded 13 hits in 7.1 innings. His Detroit ERA is 7.36, though it’s skewed due to one catastrophic outing against Cleveland in late July.

Coming off the disabled list, it remains to be seen if Soria can regain his usual effectiveness before the season ends.

Anibal Sanchez

Another intriguing possibility exists at closer as the season winds down. Anibal Sanchez, a starting pitcher who has been on the disabled list since early August with a pectoral strain, is in the final stages of his rehabilitation and could soon be activated.

Why he should be the closer

With the season nearing its close, Sanchez will probably not have sufficient time to “stretch out” in preparation for his return to the starting rotation. As it stands, the Tigers are generally better off in the rotation than they are in the bullpen, so Sanchez could find himself pitching out of the pen in short order.

The question then turns on how to optimize Sanchez’s pitching skills in this new capacity.

A strong case can be made for him to close games if he comes back healthy and reclaims his status as an elite pitcher. As the American League’s ERA leader in 2013, he certainly has the pedigree.

He has also posted stout numbers in 2014 (ERA-3.46, WHIP-1.10, opponents’ batting average-.228), and even if not eventually named closer, Sanchez should significantly bolster the relief corps when he gets back on the field.

It should also be noted that Sanchez has held left-hand hitters to a lower WHIP (1.00) this year than right-handers (1.24), and thus could remain in the game against tough lefties.

Why he shouldn’t be the closer

Aside from the fact that Sanchez is not quite ready to return to action and will be broken in gradually once he does, the most compelling reason is that he’s never closed before.

Starting and relieving are different animals that require divergent skills and preparatory regimes. A starting pitcher such as Sanchez, who has done nothing but start throughout his professional career, might find it difficult to adapt both physically and mentally to the demands of the bullpen.

Professional athletes are no different than the rest of us – they tend to perform their best work within their own “comfort zone”. Take that psychic security blanket away from them at your own risk.

The Bottom Line

Brad Ausmus has a hard decision to make at closer that will profoundly affect the fortunes of the 2014 Detroit Tigers.

Whether he decides to retain the aging warrior Joe Nathan, plug in the experienced Joakim Soria, or take a flyer on starter Anibal Sanchez when he’s ready, each option is fraught with both opportunity and danger.

Whatever the case, it shouldn’t be too long before we get Brad Ausmus’s answer to that question once posed by the young Johnny Carson on daytime TV.

Who do you trust?

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